Saving seeds is as essential a skill as humans have ever cultivated. Our ability to adapt the ecology we inhabit to our food and medicine needs is one of the distinct abilities that have propelled our species to such dramatic expansion around the globe. Yet seed saving is a skill that’s being lost. In this article I’ll profile some of the simplest steps and considerations to help you start saving your own seeds right away.
Here are 8 things you should know to successfully save your own seeds and store them for the best chance of good sprouting (germination). Be sure to read till the end for some bonus tips on how to prevent your plants from cross breeding and having your seeds grow up different than you expected.
Do a little research on the plants that you’re hoping to save seeds from if it’s your first time. This can help you to identify how long it takes for your plant to set seed, what the seeds look like, and how to tell when the seeds are ready to harvest. If you can’t find any specific information on your particular plant, ask a local gardener.
Save seeds from produce you normally buy. Spend a little extra on an heirloom or other interesting or rare variety from the farmers market and save the seed to grow your own next season. Most, but not all, vegetables will grow “true” from seed, meaning that it’ll grow into the same type of plant you got it from.
Storing seeds correctly is just as important as harvesting them correctly. You want to keep your seeds away from any moisture, sunlight, or temperature swings. Make sure you dry them thoroughly before you store them. Both paper and plastic bags work fine for storage, just make sure to put those bags in a cool dark space where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate. Basements are great, and many people store them in their refrigerators or even freezers to extend their shelf life.
Drying seeds isn’t complicated but depending on the seed it can take a while to dry completely and you don’t want to cut corners. Make sure you dry them thoroughly. Usually small seeds will be dried enough after being left outside for 2-3 dry days on a screen or tray. Larger seeds take longer but can be helped along with a fan or dehydrator. Just be careful not to overheat them. A seed’s viability can be damaged at temperatures of 100 F (37 C) or more. Seeds and seed pods should feel light and crispy before you put them away to store.
Labeling is also very important to correct seed storage. If you don’t label them, it’s easy to lose track of what seed is what and how long they’ve been stored. Nearly all seeds have a limited storage life and will no longer be viable after a certain time. At the very least I recommend labeling your seed packets with the name of the seed or plant (scientific name for extra credit), where or who you got the seed from (this can work like a travel log if you’re a nerd like me who likes to gather seed everywhere you go), and the date that you stored it. If you get into breeding seeds you’ll want to keep track of a lot of other things, but for basic seed saving this should be good enough. If you do a little research you can also estimate an expiration date for your seeds too so you don’t end up hoarding a bunch of packets with dead seeds in them.
Many common vegetables and fruits are really easy and straightforward to save seeds from. Plants like tomatoes, beans, peas, corn, cucumbers, melons, culinary herbs, lettuce, eggplant, peppers, and greens like spinach, arugula will all give seed their first year and have a low chance of cross breeding and don’t need big populations to pollinate (though corn benefits from being planted in large numbers). Though not necessarily difficult, biennial root crops like beets, carrots, onions, parsnips, leeks, turnips, chard and brassicas such as cabbages, broccoli, and kale have to be left in the ground for a second season for them to set seed.
Other plants like squashes (both winter and summer varietals), and the brassicas I mentioned before, easily cross breed with others in their genus. For example zucchini, acorn, and spaghetti squash are all Cucurbita peppo, as opposed to Butternut squash (Cucurbita moshata). So the zucchini, acorn, and spaghetti are all likely to cross while the butternut may breed “true.” Another example would be cauliflower and brussels sprouts which are both Brassica oleracea and as a result they can easily cross pollinate, while Russian kale (Brassica napus) will likely never mix. If plants cross pollinate it’s not necessarily a bad thing but they’ll have the genetics of both parent plants the same way you have a mix of genetics from both your mother and father.
If you’re trying to save seed from plants that easily cross pollinate you’ll have to separate them by large distances so that pollinating insects like bees won’t mix their genetics. Most of us don’t have huge areas to spread our gardens around so you’ll have to be careful that the plants you’re hoping to save seed from aren’t near others of the same genus.
If all of these steps still seem a bit complicated and you’re worried about saving and breeding your own seed, just remember, there’s almost no way to completely fail. The worst that can happen is that your seeds don’t sprout or grow up to be plants you didn’t expect. Even in those cases you’ll have learned new things about the process. The truth is that most seeds are super easy to harvest, store, and sprout. Though I covered a few of the plant species that easily cross, most of the fruits and veggies you’ll be saving seed for grow “true” without any finicky precautions. So get on out there and give it a try this year. There are few skills that I know of which allow you to fight corporate takeovers, combat the loss of genetic diversity in our food, reconnect you to nature, save you money, and deliver delicious home grown nutrition all in one.
If you want to learn more about saving seed, I highly recommend the following resources:
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